Wednesday, October 6, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Safeco Ends Sponsorship -- 18-Year Association With Lpga Tour Ends

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Safeco is discontinuing its sponsorship of golf's Safeco Classic, and unless another sponsor emerges, the LPGA Tour stop at Meridian Valley Country Club in Kent is dead after 18 years.

Gordon Hamilton, vice-president of public relations for Safeco, cited three factors in the decision to end sponsorship of the tour's longest continuous same-sponsor event:

-- Since acquiring American States Insurance Corp. in 1997, Safeco's marketing has shifted from a regional to a national focus. The company believes it is accomplishing its new objectives by owning the naming rights at Safeco Field.

-- By having the naming rights to the Mariners' home field (total cost: $40 million spread over 20 years), the company is reaching many of the same local target fans - golfers, women and families - who were devotees of the golf tournament.

-- The Safeco Classic purse would need major boosting for future years, and the company decided against it. The purse of $650,000 would have had to be increased to at least $900,000 or $1 million to meet company standards as a first-class event, Hamilton said. At least 15 LPGA Tour stops this year have purses of $900,000 or more.

"All good things must come to an end, but it doesn't make it any easier when we have had such a great following for what has become a September tradition on Northwest sports calendars," Hamilton said.

Only three of the top 10 players on the tour money list played in this year's Safeco Classic. The purse amount was cited as one reason for absences, along with scheduling the event immediately after the Samsung World Championship of Golf. Many top golfers planned their September schedules around the World Championship and took Safeco week off.

The Safeco Classic has been the only annual stop by a professional golf tour in the state since 1996. The 10th and final GTE Classic for PGA Seniors took place in 1995 at Inglewood Golf Club in Kenmore.

Joanne Carner, a Kirkland native whose triumph in the 1985 Safeco Classic was the last of her 42 wins on the LPGA Tour, last night called Safeco's decision "a shame."

"The Seattle area is so golf-oriented," Carner said from her Florida home. "I can't believe they are pulling away from it. Everybody plays golf out there. . . . They are probably the best fans we have on Tour. They are so knowledgeable. This is a big disappointment."

Carner was scheduled to play in the Safeco this year but withdrew when it appeared that Hurricane Floyd was about to slam into her Florida home, where she lives with her husband, who is in poor health.

Tournament Director Rosanna Bellotti said Safeco's decision was "a surprise, but not out of the blue. I certainly knew it was a possibility."

Bellotti, an independent contractor who has run the past five tournaments, said she plans to begin searching for a replacement sponsor immediately. She estimates that one will have have to be found within six weeks. Safeco's Hamilton said he will help with the search, and the King County Sports and Events Council and the LPGA will be involved.

"We don't want the Tour to go away from Seattle," Hamilton said.

The search for a new sponsor may lead the LPGA into direct competition with the PGA Tour. As part of its licensing agreement with the new Tournament Players Course at Snoqualmie Ridge, the PGA Tour is obligated to put a regular Tour or Senior Tour event there. However, no sponsors have been found. Potential sponsors showed no interest in a limited-field PGA Tour event that would have been staged opposite this year's World Golf Championship-NEC Invitational in August. Reno landed the diminished-field event.

Asked if he is braced for criticism that Safeco is abandoning a women's athletic event for a men's sport (baseball), Hamilton replied, "Anybody who would say that is ignoring 18 years of commitment to women and to women's golf and the fact we think we've earned the right to be labeled loyal and committed to women and women athletes."

Hamilton said relations with the LPGA were cordial to the end. He said LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw was disappointed when informed of Safeco's decision yesterday but expressed appreciation for 18 years of sponsorship. Safeco never has had more than a one-year contract with the LPGA.

Hamilton said the final decision to stop sponsorship of the tournament was made last week.

He said Hurricane Floyd, which is a reason Safeco's third-quarter profits will fall nearly 90 percent below Wall Street expectations, wasn't a big factor in the decision. He noted that the sponsorship had remained intact in years of previous major disasters.

The Meridian Valley Country Club has been the site of the Safeco Classic since it started in 1982.

General Manager Cathy Wagner was told of the decision yesterday and called it "a sad day."

"We always knew there was the possibility of it going away," she said. "We've had such a great relationship with Safeco and the LPGA. We're sad to see it go."

Wagner said the club "certainly" is interested in remaining an LPGA stop if another sponsor can be found.

She said Meridian Valley has benefited from the publicity the tournament generates and that tournament revenue has helped fund improvements at the club.


. Safeco Classics .

. Year Winner First prize Total purse .

. 1982 Patty Sheehan $26,250 $175,000 . 1983 Juli Inkster $26,250 $175,000 . 1984 Kathy Whitworth $26,250 $175,000 . 1985 Joanne Carner $30,000 $200,000 . 1986 Judy Dickinson $30,000 $200,000 . 1987 Jan Stephenson $33,750 $225,000 . 1988 Juli Inkster $33,750 $225,000 . 1989 Beth Daniel $45,000 $300,000 . 1990 Patty Sheehan $45,000 $300,000 . 1991 Pat Bradley $60,000 $400,000 . 1992 Colleen Walker $67,500 $450,000 . 1993 Brandie Burton $67,500 $450,000 . 1994 Deb Richard $75,000 $500,000 . 1995 Patty Sheehan $75,000 $500,000 . 1996 Karrie Webb $82,500 $550,000 . 1997 Karrie Webb $85,500 $550,000 . 1998 Annika Sorenstam $90,000 $600,000 . 1999 Maria Hjorth $97,500 $650,000 .

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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